Lisa Genova, who conducted this interview, is the New York Times bestselling author of Still Alice and Left Neglected. She graduated valedictorian from Bates College with a degree in biopsychology and earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard University. She lives on Cape Cod with her husband and three children.
LG: I love reading about characters who are forced to face huge, unusual, life-and-death obstacles. I think I love this because it’s a chance to see the resilience and adaptability of the human spirit, to witness powerful and meaningful change. You gave your main character, Sicily Coyne, one doozy of an obstacle. How did you come to imagine this woman who loses her face in a horrific fire?
JM: When I was little, there was a fire on the west side of Chicago at a school called Our Lady of Angels. Everyone had a neighbor, a cousin, a sibling, a good friend who knew, and knew well, one of the 92 children and three teaching sisters who died there. People kept copies of the Life magazine cover photo of firefighter Richard Scheidt, carrying out the unmarked body of ten-year-old John Jakowski from the building. The picture is excruciating. Scheidt’s face is the personification of agony and mercy, almost like the mother of Christ. The child looks as though he has peacefully fallen asleep. That was the central image with which the book started, the firefighter giving his life so that a child might not die alone—in part, perhaps, because his own child survived, although terribly disfigured. The face transplant was a pretty natural idea because I was pre-med in college (unlike you, Lisa, I was undone by mathematics). I’m bewitched by science. Once I learned that this procedure could become simpler with practice (because everyone has a trigeminal nerve and an orbital floor in more or less the same place) I asked myself, what will be the next complication? And then the idea bloomed. What might naturally happen if someone’s beauty is restored, after a dozen years, in the bloom of her young womanhood? And that was the ethical mystery, the hinge of the story.
LG: Sicily, Marie, Beth, and Eliza are all strong, smart, stubborn Italian women. Where did the inspiration for these dynamic women come from?
JM: I grew up in an Italian neighborhood. All my boyfriends were handsome hoodlums, much prettier than I was. My godmother and godfather were first generation Italians, and so were my best friend’s parents, and much of the way I learned to make sense of the world (and to make great gravy) were as a result of days spent in my godmother’s kitchen. My own mother was star-crossed in many ways, but was a strong, smart, stubborn woman, much like Marie, Sicily’s aunt. In fact, physically and in her speech, my mother could be Marie, if my mother had not died very young. I didn’t realize this until you asked the question.
LG: Readers who fell in love with the Cappadora family in The Deep End of the Ocean and No Time to Wave Goodbye will be thrilled to see them again in SECOND NATURE. Had you always imagined that Vincent’s journey would lead him to someone like Sicily?
JM: Vincent Cappadora is just me, in so many difficult and also good ways—someone who wants badly to do the right thing and manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory half the time, and the other half of the time breaks the tape at the last moment. He may get what he wants, or even what he needs, but not without going through a significant patch of hell first. How Vincent turns out depends on the thing that is most difficult for most people, and that’s the willingness to crack open and be hurt.